The Automated Tiger of Tipu Sultan

Image: Victoria & Albert Museum (Creative Commons)
In the 18th-century, Tipu Sultan commissioned an automaton in his own image as the Tiger of Mysore.

He feared less
A dose of senna-tea or nightmare Gorgon
Than the Emperor when he play’d on his Man-Tiger-Organ.

John Keats wrote these lines as part of an incomplete fairy tale. His original plot aside, the emperor referred to is the Mysorean king, Tipu Sultan. Tipu Sultan was killed in 1799 at the Battle of Seringapatnam. But one aspect of his legacy lived on, to haunt and entertain Europeans in equal measures for centuries – a robotic tiger, which Keats referenced as a ‘man-tiger-organ’.

When British forces plundered Tipu’s palace after his final battle, one of the most intriguing curios they found was an automaton rendition of a tiger, mauling what is clearly a British soldier in the redcoat uniform. The rest of the plunder was divided amongst the soldiers, but the tiger was shipped to England. As Richard Wellesley wrote, on its discovery:

In a room appropriated for musical instruments was found an article which merits particular notice, as another proof of the deep hate, and extreme loathing of Tippoo Saib towards the English. This piece of mechanism represents a royal Tyger in the act of devouring a prostrate European. There are some barrels in imitation of an Organ, within the body of the Tyger. The sounds produced by the Organ are intended to resemble the cries of a person in distress intermixed with the roar of a Tyger. The machinery is so contrived that while the Organ is playing, the hand of the European is often lifted up, to express his helpless and deplorable condition. The whole of this design was executed by Order of Tippoo Sultaun.

At first, the East India Company planned to exhibit the tiger in the Tower of London itself. But instead, it was kept at the East India House – the Company’s headquarters in London. There, the British public flocked to see the spectacle perform live. Students in the East India House’s libraries were constantly tormented by the wailing shrieks and growls of Tipu’s automaton, which was placed in the library’s reading room.

By 1843, visitors had played with the tiger so much that its organ was going out of repair. A few years later, the deed was done – to the relief of the library’s students. the Atheneaeum magazine reported:

These shrieks and growls were the constant plague of the student busy at work in the Library of the old India House, when the Leadenhall Street public, unremittingly, it appears, were bent on keeping up the performances of this barbarous machine. Luckily, a kind fate has deprived him of his handle, and stopped up, we are happy to think, some of his internal organs… and we do sincerely hope he will remain so, to be seen and admired, if necessary, but to be heard no more.

As an exhibit, it is the Victoria & Albert museum’s most eye-catching ware. Even as a static piece, it has motion. The tiger’s stripes are exquisitely painted; the horror on the soldier’s face expressively depicted. But it’s when you crank a small handle on the side of the tiger that the magic starts to happen – the tiger starts to growl, the soldier starts to scream and paws and arms flail about as if this mauling were taking place in front of you.

It was meant for performance – the back of the tiger opens up to reveal an organ. A skilled organist could wield this to make the tiger emit throaty sounds and the mauled soldier a series of high-pitched wails. You could also play a basic song, with 18 notes to choose from.

It’s a macabre work, commissioned by Tipu Sultan himself. He really hated the British, as for much of his upbringing, he witnessed his father’s never-ending battles with the East India Company. In her 2009 book, Susan Stronge suggests the tiger represents Indo-Iranian influences. Other sources claim that Tipu had French artisans work on the tiger’s internal parts. The whole of the tiger is made of wood.

The capture of the tiger was symbolism at its finest. Every soldier who fought in the battle of Seringapatnam was given a medal, depicting a British lion overpowering the Indian tiger. An illustration published in Punch magazine a half-century later also played on this theme.

The British Lion’s Vengeance on the Bengal Tiger from Punch Magazine (Public Domain)

When Tipu was alive, his reputation as the Tiger of India was well known in Europe. The tiger had come to symbolize a sort of savagery; images depicted the implied sexual savagery of Tipu’s men, and poets like John Keats and William Blake captured that element in their poems on tigers. The recovery and exhibition of the tiger’s finest toy were intended to demonstrate British superiority over the Orient. It was meant to be calming, after the storm that was Tipu had passed.

During World War II, the tiger was heavily damaged by a German bomb, its wooden frame is broken into hundreds of pieces. It was later reconstructed and repainted.

It is a shame that only this automaton survives from Tipu’s reign. The Mysorean ruler was a great patron of science, whose scientists were pioneers in rocketry. Had Tipu been freed from the burden of war, who knows what fanciful robots he would have had his expert craftsmen create. Tipu’s tiger remains one of the only automatons to be unearthed from India.

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